Yellow-billed Loon (second calendar year), River Witham, Lincolnshire.

ALREADY SURE TO BE ONE OF THE HIGHLIGHTS OF 2017 and presumably pushed into the Wash by the big northerlies and the tidal surge on the weekend of 12/13 January this magnificent bird has sought refuge, twenty miles inland on a sheltered stretch of the River Witham near Woodhall Spa. I often wonder about the reason large divers turn up inland. Maybe they are sick or emaciated after a battering by bad weather at sea, or maybe they are just smart and there is an easier living to be had on inland waters full of fish? The loon spent almost as much time under the water as on it and at first I was worried it had swallowed some fishing line but this transpired to be strands of weed getting stuck in its bill, presumably as it fished underwater. The weed was sometimes there, sometimes not when it surfaced.

Of course my main objective was to get some photos of it. It is easy to find yourself with thousands of side-on ‘field guide’ poses as the loon doesn’t change its posture much. It sometimes holds its bill more upright, it flapped its wings once in four hours and stuck its leg out a couple of times but mostly it was diving actively, sometimes for up to 100 metres along the river and then pausing between each dive for a while. So I tried for some lower angle shots including against the light trying to get the sun shining through its bill. When the early morning sun’s rays first hit the water there were some nice reflective patterns and the loon was also occasionally illuminated against dark shadows, something I am always looking for behind subjects. Against the light was also quite good at times and although you lose the red iris colour and catch-light, the sun shining through the yellow bill tip is quite a nice effect.

By the way, I got some stick on twitter for calling it ‘Yellow-billed Loon’, going American or summat. The word ‘loon’, is derived from the Norse word ‘lom’, which is what Scandinavians have always called divers and this was adapted by American ornithologists. I originally bought Lars Jonsson’s Birds of Sea and Coast in 1980 in Norway…’Fugler I Naturen Hav og kyst’ in Norwegian (‘Birds in Nature Sea and coast’) and the name ‘Gulnebblom’ is simply ‘Yellow-beaked Loon’. The Collins Guide has also adopted the name ‘loon’ so why not? Got to try and keep up with all these new names!

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